Charles Freeman, first African-American IL Sup Ct justice, retires; Appellate justice Neville appointed to replace

By Jonathan Bilyk | May 17, 2018

Editor's note: This article has been updated and revised from its original version to include comments from Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch.

After nearly three decades on Illinois’ high court, Justice Charles Freeman, the first black justice to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court and a former chief justice of the court, has retired.

The Illinois Supreme Court announced Freeman’s retirement in a statement issued Thursday, May 17, confirming the 84-year-old jurists long-expected retirement, ending the fifth-longest tenure of any Illinois state Supreme Court justice. In all, Freeman served on the state high court for 27 years and six months.

At the same time, the state high court announced Freeman’s fellow justices had followed his recommendation, and accepted Freeman’s nomination of Illinois First District Appellate Justice P. Scott Neville to fill the remainder of Freeman’s current term, which expires in 2020.

Justice Charles E. Freeman

The appointment is effective June 15.

Neville has served on the state appeals court since he was first appointed to the post in 2004, and then won election in 2012. He has worked in the legal profession for more than four decades, including a career as an attorney in private practice from 1977-2000, when he was elected to the Cook County Circuit Court bench.

In replacing Freeman, Neville will become the second African-American justice to serve on the state's high court.

In reaction to the announcement, Evan Siegel, president of the state’s Appellate Lawyers Association, congratulated Neville on the promotion.

“Justice Neville is an accomplished, experienced and admired justice on the appellate court, who is well prepared for his new role on the Illinois Supreme Court,” Siegel said.

To replace Neville on the appellate bench, the court appointed Cook County Circuit Judge Carle Anthony Walker, who would serve “until further order of the court,” the Supreme Court said. First District Appellate Justice Michael B. Hyman was also reassigned to an appellate court seat, effective until Dec. 7, 2020, the court said.

In announcing Freeman’s retirement, current state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier said Freeman “brought to the court not only a wealth of legal knowledge, but also unparalleled insight into the court as an institution.”

"As the first African-American to sit on the high court, he inspired generations of attorneys of color to pursue careers in public service and positions of leadership. As a colleague, he was the embodiment of collegiality,” Karmeier said in the prepared statement.

"It is impossible to overstate Justice Freeman’s impact on Illinois law. In the course of his long tenure, he has participated in resolution of some of the most difficult and important controversies to come before the courts of Illinois. Research nearly any point of Illinois law and you will find controlling precedent that he authored. While Justice Freeman may be retiring from office, the extraordinary body of legal decisions he helped craft will serve as an enduring legacy of his commitment to justice and to the people of Illinois.”

Freeman has served on the state Supreme Court since 1990, securing 62 percent of the vote as the Democratic candidate in the race for one of three state Supreme Court seats from Illinois’ First Judicial District, which solely encompasses Cook County. That victory came four years after Freeman had been elected to the First District Appellate Court in 1986.

He had served as a Cook County Circuit Court judge for 10 years before that, securing the honor of swearing in Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black African-American mayor and a longtime friend and associate of Freeman’s.

Before serving as judge, Freeman had worked in private legal practice, as well as serving as an Illinois assistant attorney general, assistant Cook County state’s attorney and assistant attorney for the County Board of Election Commissioners. He served on the Illinois Commerce Commission from 1973-76.

Freeman made a high-profile mark on Illinois case law not long after taking his seat on the state Supreme Court, authoring the opinion vacating the murder conviction of Rolanda Cruz, who had been sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Serial killer Brian Dugan later confessed to the crime, and is currently serving a life sentence.

"… We are duty bound to play a larger role in preserving that very basic guarantee of our democratic society, that every person, however culpable, is entitled to a fair and impartial trial. We cannot deviate from the obligation of that role,” Freeman wrote in the opinion.

The decision was the first of many helping to establish a legacy of “upholding defendants’ rights and advocating prosecutorial reforms,” according to the state Supreme Court’s release.

In 2011, for instance, Freeman spoke out against the shackling of juvenile defendants during court proceedings, in a dissent in a case involving a juvenile accused of a sex offense. In that case, Freeman concluded “a juvenile respondent has the right to appear in a courtroom free of unnecessary physical restraints unless justification is established.” Five years later, the state high court added a rule forbidding such restraints “except for specific reasons.”

Freeman was selected by his colleagues on the court to serve as the state’s chief justice in 1997, becoming the first African-American to oversee one of the branches of Illinois state government.

In accepting the office, Freeman said, at the time: “I’m an African American who now has become chief judge; I’m not an African-American chief justice. I have no different perception on what course I would take because of my heritage.”

Freeman was reelected to the state Supreme Court in 2000 and 2010, winning nearly 80 percent of the vote.

"I can't think of a single area of the law that hasn't been significantly shaped by Charles' jurisprudence over the last three decades. His influence will continue long after his retirement," Justice Robert R. Thomas said. "Charles is the court's historian and elder statesman and honestly it is hard to imagine the Court without him.”

 Siegel also praised Freeman’s career and judicial record.

“Justice Freeman has served with distinction and enjoyed an impressive and historic tenure on the Illinois Supreme Court,” Siegel said. “His career as a public servant has inspired countless attorneys in the appellate community.”

In some recent high-profile decisions, Freeman joined a unanimous state Supreme Court in striking down state pension reforms in 2015; joined with a 4-3 majority in 2016 to deny Illinois voters the chance to vote on a citizen-initiated referendum to amend the state constitution to strip from Illinois legislative leaders the power to draw the state’s legislative districts; joined with a 4-3 majority to strike down lawsuit protections for police, firefighters and other first responders accused of not properly caring for victims requiring assistance; and dissented from the state high court’s decision to overturn a $10 billion verdict against tobacco company Philip Morris, and again when the majority found a state appeals court had overstepped itself in attempting to reinstate that verdict.

Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, commended Freeman on his many years of service.

"Justice Freeman established himself as a very thoughtful member of the court for many years," Akin said. "He definitely left his mark, and he leaves very big shoes to fill."

Akin also said he believed Neville will prove to be a worthy successor.

However, Akin said the departure of a justice from the court - particularly, before his term is expired - should present an opportunity to have "a discussion" statewide on how justices of the Supreme Court and other judges throughout Illinois are selected, as well as the role of partisan politics in that process.

Akin noted Freeman held one of three seats on the court reserved for Cook County, a Democratic Party stronghold, while the remainder of the state selects only four others. 

Akin suggested it may be time for the state to reevaluate how many justices come from outside Cook County, particularly as the collar counties surrounding Chicago add population.

"As long as this system is in place, you'll continue to have judges coming from within Cook County dominating Illinois' courts, who oppose lawsuit reform, and are an extension of one-party rule in this state," Akin said. 


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